3rd September 1895 – The Northern Union is (fully) formed at the Spread Eagle Hotel, Manchester
Why we should care more about rugby league’s second meeting
It was 123 years ago today that the Northern Union – that which is now known as the sport of rugby league – was formed in Manchester.*
Okay, the asterisk. This article wasn’t meant to be posted four days ago, and I didn’t misspell Huddersfield. Of course rugby league’s founding moment was at the George Hotel on the 30th August 1895. Please do not clog up Huddersfield’s post-boxes with angry letters to the editor.
Let’s put it this way. *It was 123 years ago today that the 22 clubs that founded the sport of rugby league met together for the first time, in Manchester.
This meeting mattered, and it mattered that it happened in Manchester. Here’s why.
Broken Time and the George
The Huddersfield meeting established that a federation of northern clubs would secede from the rugby football union, citing the union’s intolerance over “broken time” payments as the final straw.
“Broken time” refers to payments players would receive for any working time lost because of travel to and from games, or injuries sustained as a result of rugby. For the “Gentleman Amateurs” who dominated the south-eastern clubs and the RFU administration, such problems were minor matters, but for rugby’s working-class players, the lack of broken time put great restrictions on when and how they could participate.
There was so much more, of course, bubbling under the surface of the Great Split. The RFU had been on a kulturkampf, instilling law after law of draconian measures against professionalism in order to preserve rugby union as a bastion of the Corinthian Amateur Spirit. Yorkshire clubs had been particularly affected and targeted, and they spearheaded the move. But in Lancashire, clubs such as Broughton Rangers and Rochdale Hornets had felt marginalised and ignored by the county’s big “gentleman” clubs such as Manchester FC and Liverpool.
(To learn more about the social and historical factors behind the formation of the Northern Union, read Tony Collins’ work – or listen to his Rugby Reloaded podcasts)
A few days before the Huddersfield meeting, Broughton Rangers presided over a gathering of local clubs to decide if they would join the Yorkshire plotters in the planned breakaway move. They agreed, and made the short journey east to form the Northern Union.
Dewsbury’s Indecision and the Spread Eagle
At Huddersfield, representatives of twenty-one Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire clubs met to discuss the proposed breakaway. Twenty of the clubs agreed. Stockport also registered their interest to join, but were unable to get their representatives to the George. Dewsbury’s diplomats said that they would have to consult their members before they could make a decision. There was still plenty more to organise before the new union was ready to debut.
A few days later, Dewsbury were out. The members had decided to remain loyal to the RFU. Prior to the main meeting, on the 3rd September the Emergency Sub-Committee gathered Spread Eagle Hotel on Coronation Street, Manchester, to discuss this news. The hotel was very close to Victoria Station, and owned by local businessman Fletcher Moss. They received a telegram stating;
Dewsbury Club decided last night not to join Northern Union. Letter following – Holdsworth
Members of the committee were said to be visibly shocked by this. However, they were soon buoyed by an even greater surprise. Runcorn, “which had always been regarded as ultra-amateur,” asked if they could take Dewsbury’s place. The Subcommittee then tried to hash out the new laws of the union, relating to broken time payments, player transfers, and the decided lack of referees. They didn’t get close to finishing.
The union now had eleven clubs either side of the Pennines, and that afternoon all twenty-two met for the first time at the Spread Eagle. For four and a half hours, the clubs continued to develop the terms of the new union, and arrange its first fixtures, which were ambitiously scheduled for the following Saturday (three days later!). They were;
Leigh v Leeds
Stockport v Brighouse Rangers
Batley v Hull
Tyldesley v Manningham
Warrington v Hunslet
Bradford v Wakefield Trinity
Liversedge v Halifax
St. Helens v Rochdale Hornets
Runcorn v Widnes
Broughton Rangers v Wigan
Huddersfield and Oldham decided against starting so soon.
Why it matters
When you consider the social and historical roots of rugby league, how much does a single event like this really matter?
Although they are not the reason or the most important factor in the development of organisations, origin points do matter. Rugby league was not created at the George Hotel, but in the months and years leading up to the schism. The George was chosen because of Huddersfield’s central location in what is now known as the “rugby league heartlands,” and because it was right next to the train station. Yet, to stick a plaque on the wall and say “rugby league was born here” gives a strong sense of place to the sport – all of rugby league’s roads led to and from the George Hotel. It gives a real, physical location to the history, an access point to all the stories of rugby league’s past.
Why then emphasise that there is a second location? By trumpeting the Spread Eagle meeting, we can show both the importance of this origin point whilst stressing that the origins of rugby league are broad.
The Spread Eagle was chosen, like the George, because it was near to the train station, and because Manchester was a convenient, central location. However, the hotel had a tradition of hosting rugby meetings, and had a close relationship with Broughton Rangers, who played less than two miles away. In the following decades, Manchester would continue to serve as a central hub for the Northern Union and the Rugby Football League. It would host two Challenge Cup Finals and, much later, two World Cup Finals. The Spread Eagle meeting is a symbol of the critical role the city of Manchester would play in the formation and practice of the sport.
By giving rugby league this second origin point, we show also how the Lancashire clubs were influential in the creation of the sport. The ghost of this demolished hotel gives rugby league a Lancashire home, from where all the successes of Broughton Rangers, Swinton, Salford and clubs beyond can be traced. Moreover, it adds a Lancastrian and Mancunian dimension to the pantheon of rugby league history, a history that traverses the world.
What happened next
That Saturday, the clubs of the Northern Union played their first fixtures under the new code. Broughton Rangers hosted Wigan in the first ever rugby league match in the Manchester district. Wigan won (plus ça change).
The Northern Union would continue to meet over the following weeks to hash things out. They gathered twice weekly for the rest of September, alternating between Huddersfield and Manchester. Over the course of these meetings, the union began to take shape.
Dewsbury’s decision to withdraw from the union would prove fatal. Immediately after the decision, the Yorkshire Post wrote that “the position of the Dewsbury Club at the present juncture is a most difficult one, and they will have very great trouble in arranging a satisfactory list of fixtures.” This would be proved correct. Dewsbury limped on for a few years before eventually folding. The current Dewsbury rugby league club bears no relation to this original team.
In 1901 the Spread Eagle Hotel was demolished. The 3rd September meeting is now commemorated with a blue plaque. Fletcher Moss salvaged the hotel’s famous archway and placed it at the entrance of his gardens in Didsbury. It’s still there, but few know that under that arch 123 years ago today walked the twenty-two rebels that formed the Northern Union. Like a symbol of Manchester’s rugby league past, it still stands, almost hidden in plain sight.